‘Water is something you cannot hold’, writes the poet Anne Carson, and in its natural state, water ruptures linear time – it is an element always on the cusp of transformation, cycling between ice, liquid, steam, and vapour. ‘Oceans From Here’, curated by Allison Holland, is the second iteration of a two-part exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography, and takes the element of water as its defining feature. Bringing together the work of Chris Bennie, Dean Cross, Emma Hamilton, Honey Long and Prue Stent, Kai Wasikowski, and John Young Zerunge, the show considers the element’s multiplicities, and the ways in which humans are bound to its movements and cycles.
As much as this iteration takes up the metaphysical, sacred and cultural properties of water, what unites the works on view is a focus on its visceral and tangible affects: the bodies that occupy the works (whether human bodies or bodies of water) are subsumed, inundated, immersed, melted, excreted, and expelled. The slow drips, the ripples, the rushes of currents, and the splashes of waves can be physically felt when apprehending these works – it is an instinctive knowing in the feeling of saturation even when remaining dry.
Long and Stent’s Neptune’s Necklace (2018) depicts a crouching figure in a small ocean rock pool. It is unclear whether the body is tipping forward, welcoming a drop into water, or emerging from it. The form is shrouded in a wet-soaked sheet that clings heavily, enveloping and suckering onto the skin. Seductive in its tactility, the image is equally uncanny in its presentation of an amphibious human form.
Cross’ Untitled triptych (Looking West, Ochred and Life preserver) (2015) records the artist symbolically returning to Country. Made up of a collection of Polaroids, Cross is depicted delicately applying and removing ochre to his half-emerged body. ‘My ancestors are Saltwater people,’ writes Cross ‘and it is salt water that connects me to them.’ When viewing these images, we become witnesses to the act of immersion, the point of communion between Cross, his family, and the landscape. In Mood Swings (2017), Chris Bennie considers our psychological responses to tides and lunar forces, and how our emotional peaks and troughs are often determined by the concealed gravitational pull of a body of water.
Hamilton, Wasikowski and Young Zerunge’s works are dealing in the documentation of ice – how water marks out the planet’s geographies, how it repeatedly pushes against and erodes the boundaries of earth and rock. Hamilton frames the horizon of the Arctic seas, whilst Young Zerunge photographs the floating bodies of Antarctica’s icebergs. Wasikowski’s Realtree series (2017-18) takes the receding glaciers in the South Island of New Zealand as its starting point. Here Wasikowsi has hydrographically printed images of the glaciers onto synthetic plants, before re-photographing an assemblage of these plants in the studio. The ‘naturalness’ of the initial landscape is deferred by this process of artificial transposition, and an untouched Romantic sublime is exposed as false.
If there is a ghost or a haunting presence in this exhibition – and, if we are to believe Roland Barthes, there is always an apparition when we are dealing with photography and the image – it is in the realisation that our natural relationship with water will, very soon, no longer hold. Indeed, the exhibition is appearing at a time when we are acutely aware of a lack, rather than abundance, of water; the routines of precipitation now disrupted (New South Wales is entirely in drought, and climate-induced dry spells are set to continue). The exhibition becomes almost a lament, a monument to a type of elemental stability that is rapidly disappearing under ecological stress. Images of ice and pools and oceans and streams become less of a comfort, and more of a potential threat.
‘Oceans From Here’ reminds us of the centrality of water, and how its rhythms and flows are instrumental in the sustenance of life – but if water has always been unstable in its ability to mutate from solid ice to liquid, the effects of climate change have pushed this instability to the extreme, moving it from a slow drip to flood.
Naomi Riddle is a writer based in Sydney, and the founding editor of the online arts publication ‘Running Dog’.
Australian Centre for Photography
Until 20 October, 2018